March 28, 2016

Clinton Has it Harder Than Sanders Because She's a Woman

Senator Clinton @ Hampton, NH
Senator Clinton @ Hampton, NH (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here's an article from Time written by Deborah Tannen, a professor at Georgetown, that seems to suggest that those of us who do not support Hillary Clinton's run for president may be sexist. Okay, that is not really what it says. I initially misunderstood because the person who sent it to me was claiming that I am necessarily sexist because I'm not supporting Clinton.

What Dr. Tannen appears to be claiming in the article is that Clinton has it harder than Bernie Sanders because she is a woman. And maybe if you perceive Clinton as untrustworthy and/or inauthentic, this is because you are using different standards to evaluate male and female leaders.

Referring to "a multifaceted iceberg of challenges facing Clinton because she's a woman," Dr. Tannen writes, "These forces combine to explain why so many people see Bernie Sanders as more authentic and Clinton as less trustworthy." So if you regard Clinton as untrustworthy and inauthentic, it must be because she's a woman. It could not possibly be because she has given you any reason to question her integrity.

This is an intriguing theory to be sure. So what's the evidence to support it? Or are we supposed to just listen and believe?

Here are some of the claims Dr. Tannen rolls out to make her case:
  • Clinton has to invest far more time and energy into her appearance and dress than Sanders does.
  • The mainstream news media has subjected Clinton to far more scrutiny and criticism than Sanders (perhaps because they have ignored Sanders for the most part).
  • Clinton has been a public figure for so long that the media is promoting their own narrative of her, a narrative that is flawed in many important ways and leads to the impression that she cannot be trusted.
  • By her own admission, Clinton is not a "natural politician," and so she is perceived as "stiff and measured" because of this.
  • Something about her hair, as if that is even remotely relevant here.
Sorry about that last one. I'll be the first to admit that I didn't get that part of the article at all.

The crux of Dr. Tannen's argument appears to be that Clinton, like all women in positions of authority, faces a "double bind." She is expected to be a good leader and to possess the same attributes valued in male leaders; however, she is also penalized for exhibiting the characteristics admired in male leaders (e.g., strength, toughness).
When Clinton is tough, a characteristic many see as unfeminine, it doesn’t feel right, so she must not be authentic.
And then if she's not tough, she's criticized for that. So the idea of the double bind is that she cannot come out ahead no matter what she does.

Personally, I don't think Clinton appearing tough (or failing to appear tough) has much of anything to do with why she is perceived as inauthentic. I think she is perceived as inauthentic because she seems to change her positions on the issues (and her accent) to suit whichever crowd she happens to be speaking to. She's perceived as inauthentic because she has not articulated a consistent vision of what it is that she wants to do that lines up with what she has done.

The real brilliance of Dr. Tannen's article, though, is that by disagreeing with her claims, we are proving her point.
The most difficult aspect of the double bind is that it is invisible; we think we are just reacting to the candidates as individuals. Yet even the words we use to talk about women, as compared to men, come drenched in gender.
If we cannot see evidence to support what she's talking about, this is taken as evidence that she's correct. I told you it was brilliant.

Let me indulge in a brief rant here about claims of sexism in the Clinton v. Sanders race. Again and again, I've heard feminists claiming that Clinton's appearance receives excessive scrutiny while Sanders gets a pass. I absolutely agree with them that Clinton's clothing has received far more attention (primarily by female journalists on TV) than Sanders' clothing. She often wears interesting clothing that gives people something to talk about. Sanders essentially wears the same thing all the time. When Clinton gives a speech wearing something that resembles a burlap sack, people are going to talk about it because it stands out as something we haven't seen before. What can one say about Sanders' clothing except that he desperately needs to run an iron over it? I'm not sure how the fact that his selection of wardrobe doesn't give us much to talk about is evidence of sexism. My guess is that if Clinton were to dress like Sanders does throughout the campaign, we wouldn't hear much about her clothing either.

What about the candidates' hair? I have heard far more discussion of Sanders' hair than Clinton's, especially at the beginning of the campaign. In fact, Sanders' wild uncombed hair was one of the things some pointed to to claim that he was a fringe candidate that nobody should take seriously. Fast forward to a few months later and part of his appeal was that he doesn't seem to give a damn about combing his hair. This was seen as appealing because it suggests that he has more important things on his mind. As for Clinton, who cares? Aside from the same female journalists obsessing over her clothes, is anybody really paying attention to her hair?

The other thing that keeps coming up is that people are constantly telling Clinton to smile while nobody would give any male candidate that advice. Really? This one baffles me because so many of us have been criticizing Sanders for rarely smiling and for sounding like he is yelling all the time. Have the journalists writing these articles not seen any of Larry David's hilarious impersonations of Bernie Sanders on Saturday Night Live? Sanders is routinely mocked for not smiling and for constantly yelling.

Isn't it at least possible that those of us who do not support Clinton's campaign are reacting to her policies rather than her gender? I did not vote for her in 2008 because of her support for Bush and Cheney's unjust war in Iraq and because she ran to the right of Obama. That is, I did not find her sufficiently liberal to be worth supporting. That didn't have a damn thing to do with her gender, her appearance, or any imagined double bind. And now in 2016, the question with which some of us are wrestling is whether she has really moved to the left or whether she is doing her best to pretend to have done so in order to appeal to a different electorate than the one who passed on her in 2008.